So here we are then. For the second time in three seasons, the Indian Super League (ISL) final is a Kerala-Bengal affair. Two years ago, in Mumbai, it was seconds and millimetres that made the difference – Kerala shattered so badly, it took them an entire season to recover from the hurt. Kolkata took the victory, but the winner was scored by a Kerala boy, Mohammed Rafique, a sense of absurdity mounted on the sense of loss. Revenge is in the air in Kochi. A lot of the Blasters players say the scars have healed, but they're fooling nobody.
Atletico de Kolkata are the narrow favourites and the Blasters relish the role of the underdogs, but to paint them as upstarts would be a major misrepresentation.
There's plenty to be enjoyed in the win at all costs (and it literally means all costs) mentality that coach Steve Coppell has instilled in this side, but it doesn't necessarily make them nationally likeable. Still, few outside Bengal would begrudge them a redemptive victory at their home turf on Sunday.
Their road to the final has been rockier than you would believe. An opening day defeat in Guwahati and then a home defeat against Atletico left them without a point with two matches gone. It took them another to get a shot on goal (0-0 against Delhi) and yet another before that shot hit the net. With four matches and a quarter of the season gone, they were at the bottom of the table with just four points. From there on though, their home form came together, as they strung together five consecutive wins in Kochi (an all-time league record), to gallop into the playoffs with plenty to spare.
That run extended to the first leg of the semi-final, as they notched up a narrow 1-0 lead over Delhi. There, after 120 minutes of suffering - for teams, officials, coaches, spectators and announcers alike – it had come down to the shoot-out, where Kerala proved that they could actually find the target, and Delhi (the highest scorers of the tournament), unbelievably could not.
What happened, happened. It is inevitable that the final loss at Mumbai in 2014 is on their minds, but there is also a collective effort to look beyond that now. Publicly at least. No revenge, no fatalism. For the Blasters, over the past two years, some things have changed, while others have not. Of those who started that final for the Blasters two years ago, Cedric Hengbart is the only one who has a chance to correct the result. The peerless fans of Kochi will hope for that.
5 matches that define Kerala's season
1. Against Atletico de Kolkata, Kochi (0-1)
Reeling from an opening day loss, Kerala arrived at their home base, looking to turn things around fast. They hadn't always won their opening home match of the season and Kolkata had never lost their first match away. Despite a change in formation, personnel and a tweaking of strategy, it was a deflected goal that let them down. The season was only two matches old, but it already seemed like a long way through.
2. Against FC Goa, Goa (2-1)
It was the second match of Kerala's long tour away from home. They were up against a side that weren't exactly top notch either. Zico's men had just got their first win of the season against Mumbai, but were a side of many parts and very little cohesion. And yet, when they took the lead, it seemed this would be another match that would pass the Blasters by.
"This was the turning point for us," Ishfaq Ahmed, says, "when we realised we could win, without necessarily playing well." And they did. Kervens Belfort's screaming winner is a definite contender for goal of the season.
3. Against Chennaiyin FC, Kochi (3-1)
CK Vineeth had saved Kerala the blushes in their previous match, scoring a poachers' delight with seconds to spare. Goa had played with nine men for a large part of the match, but the Blasters had still struggled to break them down. Against Chennai, the Blasters, and Vineeth, in particular, showed that this wasn't a one-off. It was also the game where Steve Coppell finally benched Michael Chopra, and set his team's game play for the season - sit back, absorb pressure, hit on the counter, and hit hard and fast.
4. Against Mumbai City FC, Mumbai (0-5)
Straight after the emphatic demolition of Chennai was the grounding in Mumbai. Minus Aaron Hughes, they managed to do enough damage to their goal difference to last a season. This match wasn't important as much for the result, as it was for the reaction it provoked. An away setback never affected their home form, as they went back and beat Pune, before killing off NorthEast United FC's semi-final challenge in the final league of the season.
5. Against Delhi Dynamos, Delhi (1-2)
It was not a match of the highest quality. The Blasters, despite being a man up, were content sitting back and absorbing the pressure as Delhi moved up in droves. After 120 minutes of fitful, frantic and occasionally drab football, it came down to the spot kicks, and Sandip Nandy's heroics in the goal. The match and the result will give confidence not just to the goalkeeper but also to Coppell who can now be thrilled with the prospect of having six foreigners in the outfield.
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Updated Date: Dec 17, 2016 16:24:50 IST